Ella played it safe throughout most of the pandemic.
With Delta cases waning and her daughter living in Granada, Spain, for a few months, December seemed like a wonderful time for a European vacation. But when the trip was over, Ella tested positive for Covid-19, and the United States won’t let her come home. Instead, she is isolating in an apartment in Spain, continuing to test positive.
As a registered nurse working at Marin Medical Center, Ella has fought Covid on the front lines since the pandemic began two years ago. Always taking extra precautions, she double-masked with KN95s or N95s, instead of simply donning a surgical mask. When the vaccinations were available, she was first in line. Vaxxed, double-vaxxed and boosted.
“I was super cautious for myself and my patients,” Ella said. “I never had even a sniffle.”
Over the holidays, Ella let her guard down while vacationing with her daughter in Spain, where they both came down with mild cases of Covid, likely Omicron. Ella is still testing positive on day eight. Her daughter is right behind her on day five. Both women have experienced most of the tell-tale symptoms, including tickly throat, fatigue, sweating, coughing, runny nose, congestion, GI upset, diarrhea and muscle aches. Unlike her daughter, Ella is experiencing brain-fog symptoms.
“The CDC basically won’t let me back in my country due to the positive tests,” Ella said. “But when I get back home, I’ll go straight back to work. We only have to quarantine for five days and then have a negative test, and I’ll have done that here in Spain. So many staff are sick at Marin Medical Center, because so many in the general public are sick.”
Ella’s story is common now. The highly-contagious Omicron variant, which has a very short incubation period, began sweeping the globe in November. Within a month, it arrived in the Bay Area. In the new year, cases began to skyrocket to record heights, even impacting some fully-vaccinated residents, like Ella.
In recent weeks, the new surge has led to cancelled events, consternation about returning to school and work, and long lines at Covid-19 testing sites.
While Omicron may spread like wildfire, those who are double vaccinated and boostered fare better with the variant, typically experiencing minor symptoms and shorter duration. People who declined the vaccinations may find the virus stays with them longer and produces more severe symptoms, such as fever or chills, cough, difficulty breathing, headache and new loss of taste or smell.
Hospitalizations are again high due to the sheer number of people catching the virus; however, fewer people are put on ventilators and even fewer will die from this strain of the virus. While the Delta variant impacts the tissue in lower lungs, alveoli and lungs, causing respiratory problems and sometimes death, Omicron seems to stay in the upper airway and throat, resulting in more cold-like symptoms.
Over the winter break, Omicron became the dominant strain, and cases began to spike throughout the state.
On Monday, Jan. 10, California health officials reported 308,820 new infections over the weekend. The staggering figure pushed the state’s total number of cases throughout the entire pandemic to over 6 million reported cases. The state surpassed 5 million cases less than two months before.
The trends are similar in the North Bay.
By Thursday, Jan. 6, data showed 12,000 Marin County residents were infected with Covid, approximately 4% of the county’s population. By Tuesday, Jan. 11, Sonoma County was reporting 10,117 active cases—accounting for nearly 2% of all county residents.
In Marin County, Omicron is rearing its ugly head despite the county’s 89% vaccination rate. As of Friday, Jan. 7, the county reported 119.8 new cases per 100,000 residents, compared to a rate of 14.5 per 100,000 on Dec. 7, 2021. The current case rate for unvaccinated people—776.1 per 100,000—is eight times higher than the new case rate for vaccinated people, 96.8 per 100,000.
In Sonoma County, 78% of the population is considered fully vaccinated and the case rate among unvaccinated people is roughly twice as high—196.8 per 100,000, versus 98.3 per 100,000 for vaccinated people. The county’s total case rate rose from 24.4 per 100,000 to more than 121 new cases per 100,000 in the two weeks before Monday, Jan. 10.
The rampant case spread means that a lot more people or their families will be impacted this time around, whether they are vaccinated or not.
“Most people will contract the Omicron strain personally, or someone in their immediate family or social circles will be afflicted with it,” Dr. Matt Willis, Marin County’s public health officer, said.
Despite the rapid case spread and increased strain on hospitals, schools and businesses, public health officials aren’t suggesting widespread lockdown measures similar to those implemented in the early days of the pandemic.
“Public health interventions would have to be really draconian, because the Omicron strain is so prevalent,” Willis said.
Instead, health officials are largely urging residents to stay home, avoid large gatherings and wear high-quality masks.
On Monday, Jan. 10, Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase issued a statement urging residents to stay home as much as possible for the next month. A health order Mase issued the same day bars some gatherings of more than 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors until Feb. 12.
“Our case rates are at their highest level since the pandemic began, and our hospitalizations are climbing at an alarming rate as well,” Mase said in a statement. “We are seeing widespread transmission occurring within unvaccinated groups as well as some transmission among vaccinated individuals.”
Before and after Mase’s order, Sonoma County event organizers had begun cancelling upcoming events scheduled during the next month.
Still, amid all of this bad news, there may be a silver lining.
“People always want to know, ‘How long is this going to last?’” Willis said. “Omicron is a flame that burns very quickly.”